Her Choice to Change the World
Published in News You Can Use - April 2014
By Joe Levine
In summer 2009, Amanda Washington was working as a new recruit for Teach for America in a low-income public high school in Philadelphia when a student stood up at the back of her classroom to speak out. “He said, ‘You know, Ms. Washington, it’s great what you’re trying to do, but we all understand that we’re not going anywhere because we’re black,’” recalls Washington, who arrived at TC last fall to study education policy. Another boy chimed in, arguing that school was pointless because his drug dealer father could get the family anything it needed.
The moment would have been tough for any idealistic young teacher, but for Washington, who is the great-great granddaughter of Booker T. Washington, it also framed a challenge in historical terms. “When my great-great grandfather was a boy, he couldn’t attend a new school for blacks because his stepfather desperately needed him to work to help support their family,” says Washington, whose mother and father are, respectively, a pediatric neurologist and a doctor of internal medicine. “So he decided that he was going to educate himself by any legitimate means necessary. If he were alive today, I think his message would be the same – to take ownership of your education. And what was so heartbreaking was that these kids had internalized the systematic roadblocks set before them, believing that they couldn’t be more than what some people have told them they can be.”
Washington has been aware of her family heritage since childhood, when she and her father set out on foot to retrace the 200-mile trek that Booker and his family made from Virginia to West Virginia after they were emancipated as slaves. Seven-year-old Amanda turned around after the first 20 miles, but there was no doubt that her life’s journey was just beginning. On her 13th birthday, a family friend, Oliver Hill, one of the lead counsels for Virginia plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, gave her an atlas inscribed “To Amanda – you’re going to inspire people and change the world.”
Inspired by Hill and other advocates for educational equity, Washington conducted a study in 11th grade comparing the experiences of friends at two local public high schools. One school was located in the suburbs and boasted multiple computer labs, a well-resourced library, an elaborate football stadium and an Apple laptop computer provided to each student. The other was an urban school where “students were not allowed to even take their textbooks home at night.”
That research later would be referenced by Hill and others working to create awareness about modern educational inequity. Meanwhile Washington went on to study English literature and Spanish at Spelman College, a historically black college for women where the tagline is “a choice to change the world, and then earn a master’s degree in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) from American University School of Education and Health.
Then came her trials by fire in the public schools. One troubled young girl responded to Washington’s persistent outreach by cursing and hurling objects at her. “I often went home disappointed and it wasn’t uncommon for me to shed tears of frustration,” she recalls. “I realized that she was behaving that way because she didn’t know how much I genuinely cared about her education and her future. She later told me that she’d never had an educator that she sensed genuinely cared about her progress. When she finally came around, she told me that she wanted to go to Yale and eventually pursue her Ph.D., it made me feel that I wanted to do more. ”
Since then Washington has dedicated herself to providing educational leadership in the U.S. and around the world – and she believes TC is the right place to pursue that calling. She already has taken courses in law and educational equity with TC faculty experts including Michael Rebell, Jay Heubert, Jeffrey Henig and Carolyn Riehl. “During the first four days of class, Professor Rebell talked about many of the challenges I’d encountered during my four years as a teacher, including the debilitating impact of issues of race, poverty, health care, and school funding,” she says.
Meanwhile, her great-great grandfather continues to be much in Washington’s thoughts. She’s proud to carry his name, but also humbly regards the connection as “an accident of birth” – a legacy to be lived up to rather than a pedigree to brag about.
“In efforts to empower a once enslaved population, Booker T. Washington reminded us in his book Up From Slavery that, ‘it is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of those privileges,’” she says. “This lesson is transferrable to an education system that struggles to serve many of our low-income students of color today. So I look at that system as something more comprehensive than books and lesson plans and passionate teachers. Broken classrooms and resources provided to students in low-income communities absolutely must be fixed, but at the same time, we as educators and allies are also obligated to repair these students’ self-esteem, self-awareness and their ability to conceptualize a limitless future.”